Lynbrook resident Michael Hawxhurst was at his desk on the 80th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when he heard, but could not see American Airlines Flight 11 crash into the North Tower between floors 93 and 99.
“It hit on the north side, so you really couldn’t see the damage that was done,” recalled Hawxhurst, who is now the Village of Lynbrook’s deputy mayor. “You could see the flames and smoke. We thought one of the small planes flying around the area hit the building, but later they announced that we should evacuate, so we started walking down.”
Twenty years later, Hawxhurst, 54, recalled the events of that terrible day in an interview with the Herald.
At the time, Hawxhurst was an audit director for Mizuho Capital Markets. After being told to evacuate, he and five others from his office headed down the staircase, while others stayed, all unaware of the deadly events that were still to unfold. When they reached the 44th floor, an announcement over the loudspeaker urged people to return to their offices so they would not interfere with the rescue efforts at the North Tower.
Hawxhurst was standing outside a freight elevator to take him back to his office at 9:03 a.m., when United Airlines Flight 175 struck between the South Tower’s 77th and 85th floors, including Hawxhurst’s office, killing four co-workers.
“You felt the building shake, but not like you would have thought if a 747 at full speed hit it,” he said. “It shook, and you felt a rush of air come through the elevator shaft. We knew something was wrong and didn’t know what, and we decided to walk the rest of the way.”
Hawxhurst had gotten to work shortly before 8 a.m. that day. After the first plane hit, he saw papers flying and flames spewing from the North Tower, but couldn’t see the full impact zone. After the second plane hit, he and his co-workers tried not to panic, he said.
“The immediate thought was just to get out,” he said. “We went back to the stairwell and started walking downstairs again. With each floor, more people were coming on the stairs, so it was slow going, but we were continually making progress.”
When he and others reached the 20th floor, Hawxhurst said, they crossed paths with firefighters climbing up the stairs while they were heading down. It was chilling to think, he said, that many of those firefighters likely didn’t survive that day. After exiting the building, Hawxhurst walked across Broadway to John Street.
Because it was 2001 and cell phones were in their infancy, only one person had one among them to try and contact their families to let them know they were OK. Hawxhurst said he gave his family’s contact information to the group before parting ways with them. He was in shock, he said, when he first saw the buildings billowing smoke as he looked back amid the frantic scene of people racing out and first responders rushing in.
“It was just complete shock,” he said. “At that point, I could see the holes in the buildings. I could see these huge airplane engines. I saw one of them on the ground, and you kind of didn’t realize what was happening in the sense that it was a terrorist attack, but you could see the scope of disaster.”
Hawxhurst and his group made their way through the smoke uptown and walked across the 59th Street Bridge into Queens. Only then did they learn of the coordinated terrorist attack. The bridge was packed with cars and pedestrians fleeing Manhattan. Two fighter jets flew overhead toward ground zero, an image that Hawxhurst said remains with him 20 years later. The group then walked down Queens Boulevard, caught a city bus to Jamaica, Queens, and jumped on the Long Island Rail Road, off to their separate destinations. Hawxhurst headed home to Lynbrook, where his wife at the time, Melissa, and daughters, Sarah, then 4, and Hannah, 10 months, were waiting for him.
“My only thought was to get home to my family and make sure that other people got home to their family,” he said.
Sad, but grateful
Though he and many of his co-workers escaped, Hawxhurst said, four people from his office died that day because they didn’t evacuate. He said he felt fortunate to get out alive, but noted he feels a deep sense of remorse for the 2,996 people who died that day, including 344 firefighters and 71 police officers.
When Hawxhurst returned home, he hugged his family, feeling grateful to be alive and in their arms. Only then did he learn that both towers had collapsed, the Pentagon had also been attacked, and United Flight 93 went down over Shanksville, Pa., after passengers thwarted a third terrorist attack.
After the attacks, Hawxhurst worked remotely until mid-December 2001, when he went back to work at a different building in Manhattan. He said it was “a little bit eerie” to return to the office, especially since members of his senior staff had died in the attacks.
“It gives you a new lease on life,” he said, “and shows you how important your family is and that you have to spend the time with them and enjoy the time with them because you just don’t know what’s going to happen in life. You’ve got to enjoy every moment you have with them.”
Hawxhurst remained with Mizuho Capital Markets for six years after the attacks and then took an audit position at UBS, where he still works. He became a Lynbrook village trustee in 2009, and is now deputy mayor. On July 31 this year, he wed Shannon Kelly and has three stepchildren with her, Andrew, Hannah and Nora.
On Sept. 11, the village will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the attacks in a somber ceremony, which has been an annual tradition in the years after that dark day. Hawxhurst said it is vital to remember the lives lost, and noted that the village refurbished its 9/11 monument in Memorial Park and added lights for this year’s ceremony.
Hawxhurst said he often thinks about the events of that day and still carries a key to his old office labeled “World Trade Center” with him on his keychain.
“People need to be aware of the number of people who lost their lives, the number of heroes who tried to save people that day,” Hawxhurst said. “I was walking out of that building and I’m watching people walk in . . .. All those people who gave up their time to help someone else. That’s what our country’s about. That’s what our neighborhood is about — helping other people in their time of need — and you don’t want that ever forgotten.”